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Why are some Steelers jersey numbers considered to be sacred but others aren’t?

What’s in a number? Memories, of course. But is Kendrick Green ever going to make you forget about Maurkice Pouncey? Probably not.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers rookie center, Kendrick Green, made news last week when he requested and was issued No. 53, the same digit the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey donned for 11 highly-decorated years.

On one hand, it made sense because Green wore No. 53 at Illinois. On the other hand, it didn’t make sense because Pouncey is a legend who may eventually wind up in Canton.

Make sense?

When it comes to Steelers digits and the ones that are held sacred and off-limits and those that are exposed to the expansion draft of unknown rookies, nothing really makes much sense.

For example, guard David DeCastro was issued No. 66 immediately after being selected in the first round by the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft. I don’t remember there being a whole lot of buzz over this rookie taking the number of legendary guard, Alan Faneca. I realize this was five years after Faneca left Pittsburgh. I also realize that this is David DeCastro we’re talking about. However, what difference did it make in how much time had passed? Wasn’t Faneca more of a sacred cow to the Steelers and their fans even in 2012 than Pouncey is now? In Faneca, we’re talking about the guy who threw the key block to spring Fast Willie Parker on his 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL. He was arguably the best guard of his era and a candidate for Canton the moment he retired. As for DeCastro, he was still an unknown commodity when he was issued Faneca’s number.

Do you know how I know the passage of time doesn’t matter when it comes to issuing the jersey number of a legend? If No. 58 was handed out today, 36 years after Jack Lambert announced his retirement, many fans would lose their bleep over it.

So why is this whole thing so arbitrary?

The Steelers love to say it’s because of the scarcity of certain numbers due to the limitations of some positions, but an offensive lineman has always been able to pick any digit between 50-79.

Why have the numbers of two Steelers legendary centers—Mike Webster’s No. 52 and Dermontti Dawson’s No. 63—been off-limits since their playing days, but Pouncey’s No. 53 is handed out right after he retires? Do you mean to tell me the Steelers can’t stash one more number away in honor of a center who did his part to carry on the organization’s excellence at that position? I understand that Nos. 58, 59, 70 and 75 are also either officially or unofficially off-limits in the 50-79 category, so that may make it tougher. Maybe Green should have been issued No. 68, considering it's mostly been fair game since L.C. Greenwood’s playing days came to an end way back in 1981.

Like I said, arbitrary.

Apparently, Hines Ward’s No. 86 has been on the Steelers’ off-limits list since he retired after the 2011 season. Fine. Ward was a two-time Super Bowl champion. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XL. He is the organization’s all-time leader in receptions and yards. But what about John Stallworth and Lynn Swann? Why did the organization start handing out their numbers—82 and 88, respectively—to every yahoo known to man not long after their playing days came to an end? (No offense to John Rodgers and no disrespect to Yancey Thigpen and Antwaan Randle El.) Swann and Stallworth played on four Lombardi winners. Also, Swann was voted Super Bowl X MVP, while Stallworth perhaps should have received the same honor for his heroics late in Super Bowl XIV. It’s true that neither receiver had the same statistical career as Ward, but Swann and Stallworth played in a different era and are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor which may never be bestowed upon Ward.


In fairness to the Steelers, it must be pointed out that the NFL spent decades limiting both receivers and tight ends to numbers between 80-89. But how many total players from those positions are on a roster at any given time? Eight? OK, maybe, logistically, the Steelers' hands were tied when it came to issuing numbers to players in the days before those positions were opened up to more digits. Between incoming rookies and guys already on the roster, it may have been impossible to place Swann and Stallworth’s numbers in the off-limits category.

However, that’s never been an issue for defensive backs. Mel Blount’s No. 47 and Troy Polamalu’s No. 43 have been off-limits since both players retired. Meanwhile, Rod Woodson’s No. 26 has been handed out to every Tom, Dick and Mark (Barron) since he left Pittsburgh following the 1996 season.

Sure, Blount and Polamalu were multi-time Super Bowl champions as members of the Steelers, while Woodson won his Lombardi with the Ravens in 2000. But Woodson is arguably the greatest cornerback in team history and certainly one of the best to have ever played the game. True, Woodson left as a free agent and played for a few other teams following his 10-year career in Pittsburgh, a fact often cited by fans as a reason why Woodson’s No. 26 should remain in play. However, Franco Harris retired as a Seattle Seahawk, while Jerome Bettis began his NFL career as a Ram. Yet, I don’t see a day when the numbers 32 and 36 will ever be put back into circulation.

Perhaps it’s all a matter of opinion and which players you hold near and dear. For example, to many Steelers fans, No. 83 will always make them think of “HEATHHHHHH!” But for yours truly, that number will forever remind me of “LOUUUUUU!”

Other than Ernie Stautner’s No. 70 and Mean Joe Greene’s No. 75—the only digits that the Steelers have officially retired—every number should be fair game until it isn’t.

You may lose your bleep over just the thought of some rookie wearing No. 58, but that’s only because the Steelers have kept it out of circulation for so long. However, had that number been quickly thrown back into the mix not long after Lambert retired, I doubt it would seem so taboo, today.

So what’s in a number? Memories, of course. But Pat Freiermuth isn’t going to make fans forget about Lynn Swann. I doubt any new player could ever erase the legacy of Mel Blount, Jack Lambert or Troy Polamalu.